Lower salaries and rejections: Fresh graduates face tough job market amid Covid-19 pandemic

Experts urge job seekers to lower expectations, volunteer; universities engage employers and hold virtual career fairs

Above: About 7,000 students will be graduating from the National University of Singapore this year and 5,700 from Nanyang Technological University. Left: While job hunting, NTU final-year communications student Elizabeth Lee has decided to pick up ne
Above: About 7,000 students will be graduating from the National University of Singapore this year and 5,700 from Nanyang Technological University. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Fresh graduates are in for a rocky start in their job search, amid a bleak economic environment caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which could last well beyond this year.

Those looking for work are burdened with many problems and fewer options, from short-term contract offers and rejections to lowering job and salary expectations.

Final-year National University of Singapore (NUS) chemistry student Vess Ang, 23, has been sending 10 to 12 job applications every week since last month and looking out for job postings.

Most companies have not replied, while one rejected her application. She has two online interviews next week, and is hopeful that she will land a job this year.

"No one is being super picky, we just hope to do something related to what we studied," she said.

NUS political science student Sean Lim, 25, has applied to several media outlets since last month but has not received any response. "I'm not sure whether to take whatever that comes to my plate, or wait and see if there's something better," he said.


Economists have projected that unemployment and retrenchments could worsen this year.

Nominated MP Walter Theseira, who is also Singapore University of Social Sciences' associate professor of economics, said the disruption may last longer than the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, as it is not an issue of market confidence.

"It's an issue of the disease recurring potentially for months until either a vaccine is found or a substantial part of the population has been exposed to it," he said.

"From the economic perspective, as long as major parts of the world have substantial Covid-19 exposure, it seems unlikely that travel restrictions would be lifted to those parts, which will continue to severely affect tourism and business travel."


Some help, though, is on the way for job seekers. Financial institutions will receive $2,000 every month for each Singaporean fresh graduate or Singaporean worker from other sectors they hire, as part of a Monetary Authority of Singapore talent development initiative.

But companies are holding back on hiring. Mr David Leong, managing director of human resource firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting, said: "A lot of graduates are scouring the job market and coming to recruiters, but we have to suspend any introductions as there are no requirements. We can only file their resumes for the future.

"Hiring is frozen except for those in critical and essential services, like healthcare, environmental cleaning, logistics, manufacturing and information technology/ telecommunications services."

NUS education economist Kelvin Seah said: "There are likely to be fewer job openings, more short-term contracts instead of permanent positions, and lower starting salaries for university graduates.

"Unless there is a real need for workers, most companies are likely to want to play it safe, and to hire in smaller numbers, if at all."

Internships may also be deferred or rescinded, he said, as most companies' immediate focus is on cutting losses and staying in business.


Professor Theseira said: "I think wages are more sticky than job openings, so rather than wages falling substantially to accommodate, it's more likely that employers simply will be reluctant to hire."


PeopleWorldwide Consulting's Mr Leong said graduates may need to manage their expectations and prioritise gaining experience over better salaries.

"Get engaged. Whether full-time employment, contract or temporary, this should not matter. Get a foot in the door first with a view to learn-and-work," he said.

Prof Theseira said having a job that builds some skills - like traineeship programmes - could be better than waiting for the ideal job or being under-employed.

"I am not a big fan of the idea that the solution is to get a graduate degree. Those are not good substitutes for experience in the field and they put you in competition with the next cohort for entry-level positions."


Mr Daniel Soh, managing partner of executive headhunting firm Leadership Advisory, said that not all hope is lost. Students equipped with digital skillsets will be in demand in times like these as digital businesses are thriving, while others are trying to go online as far as possible.

Moreover, the recruitment process could be shortened, as interviews and meetings with job applicants move online, he said.

He suggested that graduates try volunteer work while job hunting.

"Potential employers will ask, 'What have you been doing while looking for a job?' It may not reflect well on the applicant if the answer is 'taking a break and resting at home', even if that is an honest answer. The fact is, as a country, we need a lot of help in many areas now."


NUS and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have engaged employers and curated job openings for graduating students. NUS is expecting about 7,000 final-year undergraduates while NTU has 5,700.


Virtual career fairs were held last month for students to interact with potential employers and apply for jobs online. NTU will hold a second virtual recruitment event next month.

Acknowledging that students' job search this year may take longer than in the past, an NTU spokesman urged them to be open-minded, and said it will support those who need help after graduating.

NTU final-year communications student Elizabeth Lee, 23, initially hoped to nail her ideal job before graduation. But since last month, she has applied to more than 10 companies in the public and private sectors, for roles like marketing and event planning, and has not received any replies.

While job hunting, NTU final-year communications student Elizabeth Lee has decided to pick up new skills such as in user interface/user experience and to hone technical skills.  PHOTO: COURTESY OF ELIZABETH LEE

Going on LinkedIn is also very stressful, Ms Lee said. "They show you the number of people who have applied for a role and it contributes to a sense of urgency. Some jobs I applied for have hundreds of applicants, so it seems pretty bleak."

But she is taking her grandparents' advice to pick up new skills such as in user interface/user experience, and sharpen technical skills such as in Adobe Suite.


For NUS' Ms Ang and many of her peers, the impact of the pandemic was felt when they had to cancel graduation trips that were planned for next month and June.

"We were struggling to get refunds for our tickets, and now we're trying to find jobs.

"But we are still hopeful. I do think we will get jobs eventually, maybe not the most ideal (job), and not what we want to do long term, but that's fine with me. Not all of us stay with our first jobs forever," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2020, with the headline 'This year's fresh graduates face tough job market'. Subscribe